New rules for social media, OTTs; govt can seek details of message ‘originator’

While the Centre aims to know 'who began a mischief', its rules go against end-to-end encryption offered by messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal

Amidst growing concerns over lack of transparency, accountability and rights of users, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeITY) issued new guidelines for social media companies, over the top (OTT) players and digital media publishers.

The rules say the government can seek details of the originator of a message or tweet and social media platforms will have to disclose them. It essentially means that companies like WhatsApp will now have to break end-to-end encryption.

MeITY minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar jointly addressed a press conference on Thursday (February 25) to announce the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021.

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Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “The focus of the new rules is on self-regulation. We want to empower the users by mandating the intermediaries, including social media intermediaries, to establish a grievance redressal mechanism for receiving resolving complaints from the users or victims.”

Also read: Centre considering ‘some action’ to regulate streaming platforms

The minister further said, “Intermediaries shall appoint a grievance officer to deal with such complaints and share the name and contact details of such officer. Grievance Officer shall acknowledge the complaint within 24 hours and resolve it within 15 days from its receipt.”

The government also wants them to appoint a Chief Compliance Officer, based in India, who shall be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act and Rules. Besides, a nodal contact person has to be appointed for 24×7 coordination with law enforcement agencies. Such a person shall also be a resident of India. Henceforth, social media companies will be required to publish a monthly compliance report.

The new regulations distinguish between a significant social media intermediary and a regular social media intermediary. However, the government has not yet defined the user size to decide who will constitute as a significant social media intermediary. However, Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad hinted that a social media platform with more than 50 lakh users will be considered a significant social media intermediary.

To prevent nudity and harassment of women, Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “If there are complaints against dignity of users, particularly woman, that exploits their private parts of individuals or nudity or in sexual acts, impersonation, etc, you (social media) will be required to remove that within 24 hours,” Prasad said.

Tracking the originator of message

The new guidelines call for tracking of the ‘first originator’ of a message. The government says it is not keen on knowing the content of the message, but the person who started the ‘mischief’. It wants social media platforms to disclose the first originator of the mischievous tweet or message as the case maybe.

Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said such a compulsion is necessary to maintain the country’s sovereignty, integrity, national security and public order.

Also read: OTT platforms pre-empt I&B ministry, bring out stringent self-regulatory code

While the government wants to make traceability of the originator of messages a must on prominent social media sites, the new rules go against end-to-end encryption on messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal.

Users who wish to verify their accounts voluntarily shall be provided an appropriate mechanism to verify their accounts and provided with demonstrable and visible mark of verification.

Besides, the government wants the significant social media intermediary to have physical contact address in India published on its website or mobile app or both.

OTT platforms

The Centre has set up a grievance redressal mechanism for over-the-top (OTT) platforms and digital portals as well. OTT platforms will also have to self-regulate with a provision for addressing any grievances while upholding journalistic and creative freedom.

Union I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar made it clear that the government does not aim to bring any kind of censorship to OTT platforms. “Just like films have a censor board, OTT platforms will be required to self-classify their movies and content based on age. They should classify films based on 13+, 16+ and those for adults,” said Javadekar.

The government also wants OTT platforms to have parental lock and ensuring compliance with the same. Netflix already has the option of parental lock.

‘Significant social media’ – a category defined by large user base (about 50 lakh or more) – will be given three months to have a mechanism in place before the rules are applied on them.

For digital media

Publishers of news on digital media would be required to observe Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India and the Programme Code under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act thereby providing a level playing field between the offline (Print, TV) and digital media.

A three-level grievance redressal mechanism has been established under the rules with different levels of self-regulation.
Level-I: Self-regulation by the publishers;
Level-II: Self-regulation by the self-regulating bodies of the publishers;
Level-III: Oversight mechanism.

The publisher of digital media shall appoint a Grievance Redressal Officer based in India who shall be responsible for the redressal of grievances received by it. The officer shall take decision on every grievance received by it within 15 days.

Besides, there may be one or more self-regulatory bodies of publishers. Such a body shall be headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court, a High Court or independent eminent person and have not more than six members. Such a body will have to register with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. This body will oversee the adherence by the publisher to the Code of Ethics and address grievances that have not be been resolved by the publisher within 15 days.

Ministry of Information and Broadcasting shall formulate an oversight mechanism. It shall publish a charter for self-regulating bodies, including Codes of Practices. It shall establish an Inter-Departmental Committee for hearing grievances.

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